Receiving the Precepts

Quite awhile ago, I read in Newsweek that in the field of physics the existence of what were referred to as dark energy and dark matter had been confirmed by scientists; and that this was thought to account for about 96% of the universe. Dark energy is described as the opposite of gravity, a mysterious force that's stretching the universe. Dark matter is a collective term for matter or mass which we cannot see and does not give off light. Before the existence of dark matter was discovered or agreed upon, all the objects that astrophysicists knew about had the attribute of giving off light. The idea that matter gives off light reminds me of the image in Zen for mind or consciousness as being luminous.

In Buddhism we use the word enlightenment and sometimes in Zen, "light" is used as a metaphor for True Nature or Original Face. In the 14th Century, Keizan Jokin wrote The Record of Transmitting the Light which is a record of the enlightenment stories of the first 52 ancestors in our lineage beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha and going through Dogen's disciple Koun Ejo. These are the names we chant in service when we chant the Names of Buddhas and Ancestors. The light that is transmitted refers to Shakyamuni Buddha's zazen as enlightenment. The translator, Francis Cook, said, "The very light within humans and living beings in general is Shakyamuni Buddha's zazen as enlightenment." "It is this light that is transmitted from master to disciple as the disciple discovers this light within himself. In fact, once the light is discovered, this is the transmission."

Kobun Chino Roshi described the essence of the precepts as light. He said, "The main subject [of Denko-e — the study of transmission] is how to become a transmitter of actual light, life light." He said, "You don't use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality, or fulfilling your dream of your highest image.... The precepts are the reflected light world of one precept, which is Buddha's mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha."

The Zaike Tokudo, or the Lay Bodhisattva Initiation Ceremony, is also called "jukai" in Japanese, which literally means both giving and receiving the precepts. Before we receive the precepts in a public ceremony, we first sew a rakusu — the small patched together piece of cloth that is worn around the neck. The rakusu is a small version of Buddha's robe. Our practice is to care for it as Buddha's robe. Shakyamuni Buddha got his clothing by gathering discarded rags, washing them, dying them saffron color, and then sewing them together to make his robes. The rakusu comes to us from this tradition.

To make a rakusu, we start with about a yard of fabric which we carefully measure and cut into small pieces — some of which are not much bigger than a square inch — and then we sew them back together. When I sewed my first rakusu, I quickly found how frustrating it can be trying to keep the corners square on these tiny pieces of fabric and to keep the strips parallel to each other. One of the teachings in Zen is "everything is mind." I've never experienced this so vividly as when I was sewing a rakusu. At some point I realized that what was there before me wasn't just a needle and thread and some cloth, but my state of mind. My state of mind was there facing me. My effort, intention, and concentration, my impatience, frustration, and restlessness, as well as the desire to just get it over with, were right there before me. All the ups and downs and configurations of my mind were there looking back at me. In this process, not only do you get a rakusu made, but you also may get a pretty vivid experience of your state of mind. Then you wear it on your chest, and everyone else can see your rakusu-sewing state of mind.

One of the instructions I was given when I was sewing my rakusu was, with each stitch, to chant or to say silently, "Namu kie Butsu" which is Japanese for "Homage to Buddha," and it is one way of taking refuge in Japanese Buddhism. So with each stitch, I said one of the refuges in English, I take refuge in Buddha, I take refuge in Dharma, I take refuge in Sangha.

This way of sewing — sitting fairly still, trying to put careful attention into each stitch, and chanting unifies body, breath and mind and brings forth a concentrated state. The process of sewing the rakusu is a meditation practice itself. Through the sewing and chanting, we embody the refuges, we bring Buddha's teaching into our bodies. I think of this as the first initiation.

The precepts ceremony is another initiation. We begin by chanting the names of Buddha — Buddhas with different predominating characteristics — in order to call them forth, to invite them to be present. These Buddhas we are calling forth are not something outside us.

Next is repentance and purification in which we acknowledge our endless delusion, the endless karma created through the actions of our body, speech, and mind. The repentance verse is, All my ancient, twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion, born through body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow.

Then we are given the precepts. The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts are made up of the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Clear Mind Precepts. One of the meanings of refuge is to unreservedly throw oneself into. Sometimes it is said that as a child leaps into its father's arms, we should unreservedly throw ourselves into Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. One way to talk about Buddha is unconditioned nature, i.e. to be unconditioned by greed, hate or delusion. This is our true self. Dharma means both the path back to our true self or the teaching of how to come back; and Sangha means the people we practice with as well as all people, all beings, all things, actually everything that exists or has existed or will exist. This totality is our field of practice.

The Three Pure Precepts are given next. We use the translation:

I vow to refrain from all action that creates attachment.
I vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment.
I vow to live and to be lived for the benefit all beings.

Suzuki Roshi translated these as:

With purity of heart, I vow to refrain from ignorance.
With purity of heart, I vow to reveal beginner's mind.
With purity of heart, I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

Three Refuges act as an inspiration for taking the Three Pure Precepts, and together the Refuges and the Pure Precepts prepare us for taking the Clear-Mind Precepts which are also referred to as the Ten Wholesome Paths. The essence of the precepts is non-harming. To practice with the precepts, look at what you are doing; in this moment are your actions creating suffering? Are your actions harming yourself or others? Or, are you actions in accord with your deepest intention?

During the ceremony, the ordainees are asked, "Will you receive these precepts?" and a little later they are asked, "Will you continuously observe them?" or "Will you maintain them well?" In reference to the precepts, Maezumi Roshi said, "...there is nothing to be defiled, nothing to be maintained; yet, because we are constantly creating separation, through our body, speech, and mind, there is something to defile, something to maintain.... When we are given the precepts, we aren't given something that exists outside ourselves.." In receiving the kai [precepts], we reveal our life as the very body, form, and functioning of the enlightened state itself."

The Sanskrit word used that is often translated as precepts is sila, and it is derived from the word meaning to exercise or practice. So we don't take these precepts once and get it over with. Our practice with these vows and precepts is like a continuous maintenance job, like house-cleaning or trash collection. You may not notice how much you depend on the trash collectors until they stop coming. Likewise you may not recognize your effort in maintaining the precepts until there is a breakdown somewhere in the system. In Returning to Silence, Katagiri Roshi said that sila means to form a habit. "Forming a habit of living in a way that is based on Buddha's teaching is...called vow....We have to put this vow into practice in our everyday life.... Every day, constantly, we have to form the habit of living in the way that is based on Buddha's teaching. The deep meaning of precept is that it is Buddha-nature or Truth." He said, " To receive the precepts is to awaken to Buddha-nature. Even though we don't understand what Buddha-nature or truth is, to receive the precepts is awareness."

Our commitment to the precepts, to these vows, is rooted in our commitment to awakening. By maintaining our intention to understand what the precepts are, moment after moment, by being open to them over and over again, the gap between our lives and the precepts closes until the living of our lives is itself an expression of the precepts, a manifestation of awareness.

Ordination is a little like an intentional rebirth. When people are ordained, they receive a new name, lineage papers which show their new family and ancestors, and new clothes. Priests receive a new set of robes as well as Buddha's robe or okesa. Before the ceremony, the ordainees bathe and put on either new or clean clothes and underwear. I suspect these guidelines originated from a time when people didn't have the opportunity to bathe as easily as we do now. Priest ordination is called Shukke Tokudo which means home departure or leaving home and accomplishing the Way, whereas Lay Ordination is staying home and accomplishing the Way.

Although each ordainee sews their own rakusu or Buddha's robe, when it is finished, it is given to the preceptor, the person who is giving the precepts. During the ceremony, the ordainees are given a new name. The name may be based on the ordainee's character or present practice or his or her intention or potential for practice. This name is written on the silk lining of the rakusu which is given during the ceremony. So although we sew the rakusu, it is not ours until it is given to us. This is also true when you sew a second rakusu or if someone sews a rakusu for you. In this lineage when you sew Buddha's robe, you don't put it on and start wearing it right away, you give it to a teacher to give to you. This process recognizes our interconnection, the importance of having a teaching, a group, and a teacher to practice with. So, we don't go off by ourselves to get enlightened, we practice with others, for the benefit of all beings.

In addition to receiving a new name and a new robe, we are given lineage papers called Kechi Myaku which means blood vein, and the blood vein is the blood line of our Dharma ancestors. The blood vein is indicated by a red line that begins at the top of the linage paper with a circle symbolizing the emptiness out of which all Buddhas come.

The red line or blood vein goes from emptiness to Shakyamuni Buddha's name, then to his disciple, Mahakashyapa's name, and it continues through the names of each teacher and disciple through our ancestors in India and China to Dogen who brought Soto Zen to Japan and eventually to Suzuki Roshi who brought this lineage to America, then to Hakuryu Sojun Mel Weitsman, who is my teacher, through my name and to the new ordainee whose Buddhist name is added at the end of the list. The blood vein comes out of the feet of the new disciple at the bottom of the page and returns to the circle of emptiness at the top of the page. The ordainees are both the newest disciples and they connect directly to the emptiness from which all Buddhas come, so the blood vein has no beginning or end.

Katagiri Roshi said, "The main purpose of Buddhism is to form the habit of practice as a vow forever....It is like walking in a mist. We don't know what the mist is, we don't know where we are walking or why; all we have to do is just walk. This is buddha's practice."

Not knowing "where we are walking or why" may not seem like good advice for working with the precepts, but what I appreciate in this is the way it leads away from the literal meaning of the precepts which is so easy to conceptualize as good or bad behavior, and instead Katagiri Roshi directs us toward the unknown, beyond our thinking and our ideas of how we should be. Having a ceremony directed to something unknown pushes us beyond the limits of the material world, beyond our conceptualized world, that we think we understand and can control. Our work in Zen, including with the precepts, is to push beyond the limits of what we know through our thinking and to learn to trust something else, something wider.

In the book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron wrote about the precepts this way, "The point in keeping the precepts is that you are getting at something deeper. At the level of everyday behavior, refraining from killing, lying, stealing, [and so on]... is called outer renunciation, a sort of keeping to the list. On the outer level, you follow the rules. But outer renunciation puts you in touch with what's happening inside...Refraining from harmful speech and action is outer renunciation; choosing not to escape the underlying feelings is inner renunciation. The precepts are a device to put us in touch with the underlying uneasiness, the fundamental dynamic quality of being alive. Working with this feeling and the neurosis [or maybe difficult feelings] it triggers is inner renunciation."

So, we begin by looking at the precepts and what being true to them might mean on a literal level. And this becomes a doorway to getting in touch with ourselves on a deeper, more fundamental level. And connecting with this more fundamental level strangely enough leads to selflessness or the mind of Buddha.

© 2022 Taitaku Josho Pat Phelan